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National Survey Dispels Notion that Social Phobia is the Same as Shyness

Science Update

teen waiting to get on the bus

Source: iStock

Normal human shyness is not being confused with the psychiatric anxiety disorder known as social phobia, according to an NIMH survey comparing the prevalence rates of the two among U.S. youth. The study was published online ahead of print October 17, 2011, in the journal Pediatrics.

Background

Social phobia is a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social or performance situations. Critics of the diagnosis have suggested that psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies publicize social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, in order to increase sales of psychotropic medications, especially among youth. In addition, some have debated whether social phobia is just a “medicalization” of a normal variation in human temperament.

In response, Marcy Burstein, Ph.D., and colleagues at NIMH examined the rate of normal shyness among youth and its overlap with social phobia using data from the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens aged 13-18 sponsored by NIMH. Social phobia was assessed using standard diagnostic criteria set by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). To assess shyness, teens were asked to rate how shy they felt around peers that they did not know well.

Results of the Study

The authors found that while about half of youth identified themselves as shy, only 12 percent of shy youth also met criteria for social phobia in their lifetime. Moreover, among youth who did not identify themselves as shy, about 5 percent met criteria for social phobia, suggesting that social phobia and shyness are not necessarily directly related. Rather, the presence of social phobia may be independent of shyness in some instances.

In addition, those with social phobia were consistently more likely to also have another psychiatric disorder in their lifetime, like depression or a behavior or drug use disorder, compared to those who identified themselves as shy. Those with social phobia also showed higher levels of impairment in work or school, or among family or peers, though they were no more likely to be receiving professional treatment than those who were shy.

Finally, rates of prescribed medication use were low for all groups. Only about 2.3 percent of those with social phobia were taking the antidepressant paroxetine (commonly used to treat anxiety disorders), while 0.9 percent who described themselves as shy were taking it. In addition, those with social phobia were no more likely to be taking any prescribed psychiatric medication compared to the other groups.

Significance

The results suggest that social phobia is not simply shyness that has been inappropriately medicalized. Rather, social phobia affects a minority of youth and only a fraction of those who consider themselves to be shy. In addition, despite the greater disability that youth with social phobia experience and the greater likelihood that they will have another disorder, they are not more likely to be getting treatment compared to their peers, questioning the notion that these youth are being unnecessarily medicated.

Citation

Burstein M, Ameli-Grillon L, Merikangas M. Shyness versus social phobia in U.S. youth. Pediatrics. Online ahead of print Oct 17, 2011.